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Science & technology

A smarter way of dealing with plastic

Globally only about 20% of waste plastics are recycled. Boosting that figure remains a challenge as recycling plastic cleanly can be expensive and usually produces lower-value products, often making it financially unviable.

The new method from researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, can produce high-value products from plastic – carbon nanotubes and clean liquid fuel – while simultaneously upcycling agricultural and organic waste.

The team’s two-step process, revealed in the Journal of Environmental Management, converts organic waste into a carbon-rich and high-value form of charcoal, then uses this as a catalyst to upcycle the plastic.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Kalpit Shah said upcycling two massive waste streams through one circular economy approach could deliver significant financial and environmental benefits.

“Our method is clean, cost-effective and readily scaleable,” Shah said.
“It’s a smart solution for transforming both used plastic and organic waste – whether tonnes of biomass from a farm or food waste and garden clippings from household green bins.

“We hope this technology could be used in future by local councils and municipal governments to help turn this waste into genuine revenue streams.”

High-value nanomaterials 

The new plastic upcycling approach offers a sustainable alternative for the production of carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

These hollow, cylindrical structures have exceptional electronic and mechanical properties, with applications across a broad range of sectors including hydrogen storage, composite materials, electronics, fuel cells and biomedical technologies.

Carbon nanotubes are in growing demand, particularly in aerospace and defence, where they can facilitate the design of lightweight parts. The global market for CNTs has been projected to reach $5.8 billion by 2027.

Turning old into new  

The new method starts with converting agricultural or organic waste to biochar – a carbon-rich form of charcoal often used for improving soil health.
The biochar is used to eliminate toxic contaminants – such as Poly-cyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, known as PAHs – as the waste plastic is broken down into its components of gas and oil.

The process eliminates those contaminants and convert plastics into high-quality liquid fuel.

At the same time, the carbon in the plastic is converted into carbon nanotubes, which coat the biochar.

These nanotubes can be exfoliated for use by various industries or the nano-enhanced biochar can be used directly for environmental remediation and boosting agricultural soils.

The study is the first to use low-cost and widely available biochar as a catalyst for making contaminant-free fuel and carbon nanomaterials from plastic.
Shah, the Deputy Director (Academic) of the ARC Training Centre for Transformation of Australia’s Biosolids Resource at RMIT, said while the study only investigated one type of plastic the approach would be applicable to a range of plastic types.

“We focused on polypropylene as this is widely used in the packaging industry,” he said.

“While we need to do further research to test different plastics, as the quality of the fuel produced will vary, the method we’ve developed is generally suitable for upcycling any polymers – the base ingredients for all plastic.”

Hyper-efficient reactor 

The experimental study conducted at lab scale can also be replicated in a new type of hyper-efficient reactor that has been developed and patented by RMIT.
The reactor is based on fluidised bed technology and offers significant improvement in heat and mass transfer, to reduce overall capital and operating costs.

The next steps for the upcycling research will involve detailed computer modelling to optimise the methodology, followed by pilot trials in the reactor.
The team from RMIT’s School of Engineering is keen to collaborate with plastic and waste industries to further the research and investigate other potential applications of the upcycling method.

The research was supported through an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellowship.

Read the paper

RecyClass publishes sorting protocol for plastic packaging

Destined to any company that would like to analyse the sortability of its innovative packaging, in line with design for recycling principles.

Recyclability must be verified at every step of a recycling process and assessing plastic packaging’s sortability plays an important role in claiming whether and to what extent a product is recyclable. Following the definition of recyclability, a plastic product can be considered recyclable not only if it is collected, recycled in a commercially available process, used in the manufacture of new products but also when it is sorted into an aggregated stream.

“A holistic approach to recyclability is necessary if we are to make it happen in Europe by 2030”, said Vincent Mooij, Director at SUEZ.circpack®. Martine Brandsma, Director of NTCP added: “The ‘Sorting Protocol for Plastic Packaging’ complements the Recyclability Evaluation Protocols”, she continued “Sharing and implementing best practices and standards in the collection and sorting as well as harmonising them across Europe must follow now if we are to move the needle on design for recycling further.”

With that purpose in mind, RecyClass developed together with SUEZ.circpack® and NTCP a standardised protocol that evaluates at an industrial scale sorting behaviour of plastic packaging for the following recycling streams: PE flexibles, PP flexibles, PET bottles, PET trays, PP rigids, HDPE rigids, PS rigids. It aims to recognize any design issues that may prevent the detectability of a specific product leading to it ending up in a different stream due to, for example, a large label or a sleeve which are made of a different polymer than the main body of the product. What makes the ‘RecyClass Sorting Protocol for Plastic Packaging’ document comprehensive, is that it includes all the steps involved in the collection, transportation, and sorting, starting with the packaging waste compaction and ending with the Near-Infrared detection step. This all-inclusive approach is indispensable in evaluating properly the sorting behaviour of packaging.

The Sorting Protocol provides a testing methodology with detailed procedures and sampling methods. To assess the feasibility and operational aspects of the protocol trials were carried out at Suez sorting lines and NTCP Test Centre.

Any company interested in a third-party analysis of the sortability of its innovative packaging to identify possible sorting issues, can contact RecyClass to receive more details about the process.

Furthermore, RecyClass is looking forward to collaborate with other sorting centres from across Europe. Any interested organization can apply to become an accredited sorting facility.

Sorting Evaluation Protocol for Plastic Packaging

Solvay announces solution for recycling PVDC

Solvay, a company delivering high performance materials for safe and reliable food packaging, has conducted a proof of concept showing that polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) has the potential to be recycled. PVDC is used in food, beverage and healthcare multilayer barrier packaging across the world.

The proof of concept involves a process to recycle Ixan® PVDC bioriented film from a post-industrial waste source from food packaging without compromising the performance of the high barrier polymer. It marks an important step towards more sustainable and circular packaging applications, with the potential to launch other initiatives like recycling post-consumer packaging containing PVDC.

“The proof of concept developed by our research team is a solution for PVDC packaging circularity. It shows there is a possibility to reintegrate the recycled polymer into future applications, meaning it can be re-used and re-blended with virgin materials – without losing or degrading its high barrier properties,” said Claire Guerrero, Global Marketing Manager for Packaging Segment and Sustainability at Solvay.

“The recycling technology developed by our team enables us to achieve the right quality so that the recycled PVDC meets the strict requirements for indirect food contact, creating the closed loop,” adds Yves Vanderveken, Senior Project Portfolio Leader R&I.

Maintaining the high quality of the polymer was essential to Solvay in their quest to find a sustainable solution. Solvay specialty polymer’s function of providing a strong barrier against water, oxygen and aromas is why it is used in essential applications to preserve food and reduce waste. A reduction of these properties would defeat its purpose.

Now that this initial breakthrough has been achieved, Solvay is urging fellow companies operating within the plastics industry to work together to turn the recycling of PVDC into reality. There is a particular need to introduce the infrastructure required to collect and segregate packaging containing PVDC.

Tomra: New flake sorting Test Center in Italy

Under the theme of “Testing is believing,” Tomra representatives welcomed approximately 100 participants to its exclusive opening event and guided tour of the new flake sorting facility, located next to its office in Parma, Italy. The inspiring afternoon was filled with informative presentations and demos highlighting the company’s long-term plastics strategy, the purpose and goal of the new facility, and the numerous advantages it offers customers.

Fabrizio Radice, VP and Head of Global Sales and Marketing at Tomra Recycling, started the exclusive event and gave a detailed explanation of the rationale behind investing in a new Test Center. “We have observed an increasing demand for flake sorting tests and a strong market push for high-quality recycled plastics,” Radice told the large crowd. “This requires the purest material fractions across all plastics applications, and the respective technologies and solutions need to be identified, developed, and optimized. This will happen in our new facility, while closely collaborating with our customers and partners.”

In fact, customer collaboration is at the core of the new facility. Customers from around the world can now ship their plastic flakes to Parma. Together with their respective sales contact, the materials are processed by Tomra’s flake sorting machines. Based on the test analysis and results, Tomra will recommend the most suitable machine, process and sensor configuration for the customer’s defined sorting requirements and goals. Customers are provided with an entire business case tailored to their needs before making an investment.

Tomra’s customers have been benefitting from this concept that has been offered globally (Germany, United States, Japan, Korea, China) for decades. They can now enjoy extended testing capacities, shorter lead times and greater flexibility when it comes to scheduling tests. In addition, its location proves to be particularly convenient. Situated in Parma, at the hearth of one of Europe’s most important industrial and production regions, it can be easily reached via the international airports of Milan, Bologna, Verona and Bergamo.

In the second part of his presentation, Radice, detailed why Tomra is a ‘One Stop Shop Solution.’ First, TOMRA offers a vast portfolio of sensor-based sorters for various applications with Autosort and its application-specific complementary products at its core. In the plastics segment, Autosort offers technologies for both presorting and flake sorting that work in unison with each other and allow greater operational and financial benefits. Second, going beyond technology, customers and partners profit from Tomra’s in-depth application knowledge, invaluable consultancy expertise and ongoing service support. The alignment of machines combined with vast expertise and a one-stop service translates into maximum plant performance.

Following Radice, Alberto Piovesan, Segment Manager Plastics EMEA & Americas, presented Tomra’s flake sorting strategy and position in the plastics segment. The audience learned that the company aims to accelerate and shape the development of the sector through its vast application and industry expertise, its consultation, and the most advanced technologies.

The new Test Center will play a crucial role in doing so, as accentuated by Piovesan. “Within only 1.5 years, we established a place where new ideas and innovations are born to best respond to current market trends. More importantly, we are working on solutions that are indispensable for any sorting and recycling plant targeting to successfully upgrade plastics.”

Strong emphasis was also put on the new trends in plastics recycling and the implication these trends have on the industry. One of the trends is seen in a discrepancy of input and output qualities. Whereas input materials are expected to come with lower qualities, the required output must feature the highest qualities possible.

Facing and solving these new challenges makes the application of the latest sorting technologies critical. As an industry pioneer, Tomra clearly understands its role in the segment and continuously develops new technologies and optimizes existing ones to best serve both the customers’ and market’s needs. Piovesan stated that current market trends have resulted in high demand for recycled polyolefins, but recycling rates are still low. Since the company sees increasing potential in polyolefin recycling, it will further devote its attention and expertise to innovate PO-applications. Currently, Tomra is well-positioned in the flake sorting segment and offers two sophisticated flake sorting units.

Ida Semb, Product Manager at Tomra Recycling, offered more detail and presented the key features of Autosort Flake and Innosort Flake, both of which are used for the recovery of plastic flakes (PET, PO, PVC) as small as 2mm and deliver the purity rates demanded by the market, brand owners and converters. Autosort Flake excels in high-end applications where the level of contaminants is rather low, but the quality requirements are particularly high. Innosort Flake is applied for more contaminated streams and is available with a PO-specific sensor to sort polyolefins. With its 2-meter width, Innosort Flake provides accurate sorting result while sorting up to 6 tons per hour.

At the close of the presentations, Ida Semb, Product Manager, and Robert Glaser, Technical Product Expert Flake sorting, joined Alberto Piovesan and moved on to the demo session. All participants were guided into the Test Center, where both machines proved their capabilities in the recovery of polyolefins from highly contaminated material mixes and in color sorting.

After all international participants learned about the company’s plastics strategy, positioning, and available solutions for upgrading recycled plastics, Radice returned to conclude the event. He thanked the customers and press titles for being part of the opening celebration and summarized the key take-aways before the group enjoyed networking opportunities. “We are excited about having guided you through this inspiring and informative day. Our key-message is that we are dedicated to shaping the plastics recycling segment and contribute to it with our comprehensive expertise, technologies and, finally, our passion and commitment to enable greater circularity of our resources. With our new Test Center, we are moving ahead and focusing on the development of new solutions for tomorrow’s challenges. We are your partner and live up to our promises. We invite you to come, test your material on our machines and believe in what is possible in upgrading plastics.”

Sabic and Microsoft collaborate on recycled ocean plastic

Microsoft began this project with an objective of creating a plastic resin made from at least 10% recycled ocean plastic as part of its commitment to achieve zero waste by 2030. After hearing the initial vision for the project, Sabic joined the effort to source the recycled material and to formulate a resin that satisfied Microsoft’s demanding quality standards. The Microsoft design team collaborated with technologists at Sabic to provide feedback on prototypes made with the new resin. The final product contains 20% recycled ocean plastic by weight in its external casing or “shell.”

Magnetic separator for lithium battery powder

The quality of cathode powders such as nickel, cadmium and lithium must be optimal to guarantee the operation of a battery. Any metal contamination present in the powder reduces the quality of the material mix and leads to a battery’s short life. The automatic cleaning rotating magnetic separator filters metal particles as small as 30 μm from the poorly flowing lithium powder. Lithium is extracted from salt lakes such as the Salar de Atacama in Chile, where there are huge reserves of brine containing lithium. Some large producers process this lithium into a powder that serves as a raw material for batteries used in electric cars, laptops and mobile phones, among other things.

The magnetic separator contains nine strong, rotating magnetic bars that prevent the fine powder from sticking to the bars like a bridge. The rotating movement ensures that the product does not block on the bars, so that good deferrization is possible. The contact with the magnetic bars is therefore optimal. This is important because weakly magnetic particles in particular must touch the magnetic bars. The pneumatically operated magnetic bars of Ø50 mm have a deep catch field. With a flux density of 12,000 gauss on the bars, the magnet can capture paramagnetic particles such as iron oxide and stainless steel in addition to iron particles. The magnetic separator is dust-proof and can be cleaned automatically. The valve box in the system removes the captured metal particles on site.

Largest sorting plant in Latin America begins operation

With this facility, the city government is the first in the country to move towards a correct treatment of urban waste based on a circular economy concept – one of the priority objectives of the current administration.

Stadler supplied the cutting-edge technology to achieve this milestone. Natalya Duarte, Sales Director for Mexico at Stadler, says: “We would like to thank Mexico City for allowing us to give our contribution and take part in the great challenge of reducing waste in Mexico City, one of the most populated megacities in the world, where more than 12,000 tons of waste are generated every day.” The city government thus lays the groundwork for fulfilling its environmental responsibility, recognising the importance of complying with international agreements and the need to apply circular economy principles.

It is the country’s first government-owned automated plant for the separation and treatment of municipal solid waste. The 11,000 m2 facility sorts paper, cardboard, multilayer packaging, PET and HDPE, plastic bags and film, aluminum cans, metallized bags, textiles, glass and other metals. The plant was commissioned in May 2021. It operates in conjunction with a transfer station to process around 1,000 tons per day of waste from the municipalities of Cuauhtémoc, Gustavo A. Madero, Miguel Hidalgo and Azcapotzalco, and will be able to receive up to 1,400 tonnes of waste per day. Its operation will generate 404 jobs.

The facility is run by Pro Ambiente, a subsidiary of Cemex, which has more than 25 years of experience in waste management and in operating plants for the selection and recovery of waste-derived fuels. “We are proud to participate in this new project, which is in line with our sustainability and emission reduction objectives. We are prepared to operate this plant under a model that guarantees, first and foremost, the safety of all our employees, operational continuity through maintenance and production programs with international standards, and sorting quality to ensure a greater use of the waste generated in Mexico City,” says José Guillermo Díaz, Cemex’s manager of technology and alternative fuels.

Largest sorting plant in Latin America begins operation

With this facility, the city government is the first in the country to move towards a correct treatment of urban waste based on a circular economy concept – one of the priority objectives of the current administration.

Stadler supplied the cutting-edge technology to achieve this milestone. Natalya Duarte, Sales Director for Mexico at Stadler, says: “We would like to thank Mexico City for allowing us to give our contribution and take part in the great challenge of reducing waste in Mexico City, one of the most populated megacities in the world, where more than 12,000 tons of waste are generated every day.” The city government thus lays the groundwork for fulfilling its environmental responsibility, recognising the importance of complying with international agreements and the need to apply circular economy principles.

It is the country’s first government-owned automated plant for the separation and treatment of municipal solid waste. The 11,000 m2 facility sorts paper, cardboard, multilayer packaging, PET and HDPE, plastic bags and film, aluminum cans, metallized bags, textiles, glass and other metals. The plant was commissioned in May 2021. It operates in conjunction with a transfer station to process around 1,000 tons per day of waste from the municipalities of Cuauhtémoc, Gustavo A. Madero, Miguel Hidalgo and Azcapotzalco, and will be able to receive up to 1,400 tonnes of waste per day. Its operation will generate 404 jobs.

The facility is run by Pro Ambiente, a subsidiary of Cemex, which has more than 25 years of experience in waste management and in operating plants for the selection and recovery of waste-derived fuels. “We are proud to participate in this new project, which is in line with our sustainability and emission reduction objectives. We are prepared to operate this plant under a model that guarantees, first and foremost, the safety of all our employees, operational continuity through maintenance and production programs with international standards, and sorting quality to ensure a greater use of the waste generated in Mexico City,” says José Guillermo Díaz, Cemex’s manager of technology and alternative fuels.

From waste to bioproducts through biorefinery

The project is coming close to its final course of implementation, following a 5-year journey and results are already leading to the achievement of the objectives. Laboratory scale tests, as well as several pilot and demo scale trials have been performed.

URBIOFIN will demonstrate innovative processes in bioethanol production from the OFMSW and its use as chemical building block. The bioethanol produced from the OFMSW will be employed as a feedstock for the production of “second generation” bioethylene for gas ripening application.
Furthermore, the project will demonstrate innovative processes in Volatile Fatty Acids production from anaerobic digestion of OFMSW and its elongation into Medium Chain Fatty Acids to produce short chain and medium chain PHA biopolymers.

Regarding the biogas upgrading by microalgae photobioreactor for the production of pure biomethane, the upgraded biomethane will be further treated aiming at removing volatile methyl siloxanes.

The project will also demonstrate innovative processes in the production of bio-fertilisers from microalgae and OFMSW. Microalgae grown on OFMSW-based digestate will showcase the potential to produce an aminoacid-rich intermediate product.

The validation trials of the preliminary produced materials are in progress whilst, in the following months, the intermediate materials produced in the pilot plants will be used to formulate and produce the different bio-based products and their potential will be validated for the selected end-user purposes complying with EU legislation.

From waste to bioproducts through biorefinery

The project is coming close to its final course of implementation, following a 5-year journey and results are already leading to the achievement of the objectives. Laboratory scale tests, as well as several pilot and demo scale trials have been performed.

URBIOFIN will demonstrate innovative processes in bioethanol production from the OFMSW and its use as chemical building block. The bioethanol produced from the OFMSW will be employed as a feedstock for the production of “second generation” bioethylene for gas ripening application.
Furthermore, the project will demonstrate innovative processes in Volatile Fatty Acids production from anaerobic digestion of OFMSW and its elongation into Medium Chain Fatty Acids to produce short chain and medium chain PHA biopolymers.

Regarding the biogas upgrading by microalgae photobioreactor for the production of pure biomethane, the upgraded biomethane will be further treated aiming at removing volatile methyl siloxanes.

The project will also demonstrate innovative processes in the production of bio-fertilisers from microalgae and OFMSW. Microalgae grown on OFMSW-based digestate will showcase the potential to produce an aminoacid-rich intermediate product.

The validation trials of the preliminary produced materials are in progress whilst, in the following months, the intermediate materials produced in the pilot plants will be used to formulate and produce the different bio-based products and their potential will be validated for the selected end-user purposes complying with EU legislation.